“American Honey” – “Got anybody who is going to miss you?”
Krystal (Riley Keough) asks Star (Sasha Lane), a teenager living with loveless foster parents in financial squalor, that question in the parking lot of a budget hotel somewhere in Oklahoma, and the teen’s response was, “No, not really.”
That was the right answer for Krystal, and she instantaneously hires Star for a “business opportunity”. Her big break comes in the form of jumping into a large white van with a number of other disadvantaged kids, driving across the country and selling magazines door-to-door. We soon discover that no one truly is selling magazines, but the teens – led by 20-somethings Krystal and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) - are simply scamming randomly picked heads of households in wealthy, suburban communities. Class warfare is on full display, but the “Have nots” are not carrying pitchforks, torches or firearms. Instead, they take a much more passive aggressive approach by skimming a few dollars from the “Haves” via one targeted snake oil sales pitch at a time.
The film - written and directed by Andrea Arnold - pitches a brutal portrait of the poor, uneducated and soft underbelly of America in a road picture of bad dreams and hopelessness. Arnold’s camera climbs in and out of the van and follows Star, Jake and others during their face-to-face cold calls with sometimes unsuspecting/sometimes suspecting homeowners, as they lie about selling magazines for college tuition or bizarre fundraising ideas, like building a campus cafeteria.
The teens look and act the part as well, which gives the picture a sincere, documentary feel. They sport logoed t-shirts and baseball caps, tattoos, and piercings and speak fractured English over a heavily rap-induced soundtrack, but ironically, they are all supportive of one another. The historical, collective emotional damage seems to be a common thread shared between the kids. Rather than pass abuse to the weaker ones, they encourage, accommodate and reassure each other, as brothers and sisters of a failed society and a team of modern-day Robin Hoods who enterprise for their own needy behalf.
They really are not a team, but more of a family. A family that actually does not fight, except in the daily, Darwinistic ritual introduced by Krystal. At the end of every day, the two reps with the least amount of collected sales must fistfight. The movie only features one actual, ugly contest – shot from a safe distance - in a random parking lot, but we understand these bareknuckle battles must occur each evening for the ones who hang their heads when asked by Krystal, “How much you get?”
This is a depressing picture, with Star as the only desperate ray of hope. Her character arc begins at the bottom, and may not rise amongst a collection of outcasts and an intermittent love affair with Jake, who carries his own serious issues. Star’s interaction with Jake offers some personal growth, but Arnold features the teen’s interactions with nature as a metaphor for her bright personality confined in the dim cycle of poverty. I will not specifically call out those moments, but they do fit with the film’s title.
With a runtime of 2 hours and 43 minutes, Arnold asks a lot of her audience to hang in with Star on a journey with baked-in subtleties and organic storytelling. On the other hand, the film leaves a lasting mark, and makes one wonder how many destitute American kids like Star openly and honestly say, “No, not really,” when asked if anyone will miss them. (2.5/4 stars)